Ludicology
Public Health

Cultures of play in Leeds and Heidelberg – a personal reflection

Tuesday November 28, 2023

Sally Hall, Public Health Specialist in Leeds throughout the city's initial play sufficiency assessment, recently moved to Heidelberg, Germany with her family. The move prompted Sally to reflect on the key enablers of play in cities - concluding that a shift in parental attitudes is grounded in systems thinking across education, planning and road safety….and a willingness to embrace playfulness in the everyday.

On the day I first visit the Alla Hopp movement facility in Heidelberg, Germany, there’s a young woman in her twenties doing gleeful cartwheels over a trampoline to my right, a teenager wobbling across a slackline to my left, and a man in his seventies attempting to master a unicycle-style pedal machine up ahead. Not to mention my kids, aged six and eight, rampaging across the crazily wavy running track and clambering onto the extra-high, bouncy benches.

Everything about Alla Hopp is playful and fun. From the barefoot walk to the parkour course, moving your body here is rooted in joyfulness and self-expression. Both adults and children are invited to explore and play freely.

Alla Hopp is a network of movement playgrounds established throughout the Rhine-Neckar region of Germany from 2016 onwards, with 42 million Euros of funding from the Dietmar Hopp Foundation. The aim of this network is to inspire all generations to exercise more, through enabling and inspiring playfulness.

The opportunity for democratic free play here in Heidelberg is not limited to Alla Hopp, however, but rather emerges repeatedly as a motif of living here.

In every suburb and corner of the city, there are spaces that invite play. This is just one embodiment of the striking differences I’ve seen in how children are enabled and supported to play in this German city, in contrast to my research and observations in England.

As a Public Health specialist in Leeds

I focused on children’s physical activity, and specifically play, as a key public health issue for families. I was involved in a large-scale research project in Leeds, supported by Ludicology, which assessed play sufficiency in key neighbourhoods of the city (read more). I led on projects that supported Play Streets, and was part of a working group advocating for inclusion of playful spaces in the development of new housing and built environments.

I’m also a mum to two primary school-aged children, whose knees have never been so bruised, and whose hair and shoes have never been so full of sand, as they are now after just a few weeks of living in Heidelberg.

In his pioneering work on the spatial conditions of childhood, sociologist Baldo Blinkert developed the concept of ‘action spaces’. Blinkert’s 2004 paper on the quality of cities for children observes that action spaces must have four attributes: accessibility, flexibility, safety, and opportunity for interaction with other children.

This paper references pioneering work in playgrounds from the 1990s onwards in Freiburg, a city in the same German federal state as Heidelberg (Baden-Württemberg). This includes reduced use of fixed play equipment, more planting of fast-growing bushes, use of water, sand and rocks, and the inclusion of structures that encourage interactive play, as well as consultation with local children when new playgrounds are being developed.

Along with many other play researchers and theorists, Blinkert’s work has been critical of playgrounds as effective action spaces. Included in a 2015 paper Blinkert co-authored with Ellen Weaver is a quote from the former head of playground safety at the UK Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents –

We have made playgrounds so monumentally boring that any self-respecting child will go somewhere else to play; [somewhere] more interesting and usually more dangerous…”

But my observations of the built environment in Heidelberg suggest the pioneering approaches taken in Freiburg have been widely adopted over the past decade. A new playground is due to be built in our neighbourhood and consultations have been established specifically for children. In the meantime, it’s hard to imagine another playground in the area, when there are at least six within a 10-minute walk already.

There’s a rabbit-themed playground with hutches, giant carrots and sand buckets that can be transported with chains across a log play structure. A playground with a castle which also has a water-play area. There are three fountains where children can splash around, including one with a long channel for floating boats, seeds, and leaves. The playgrounds in the local school are open at weekends and in the evenings, including a bike track. Then there’s the double-sided play-yard with adjoining performance spaces, facilitating ad-hoc dance shows and musicals (I’ve heard a lot of the songs from Matilda lately). This doesn’t include the play areas in courtyards of apartment buildings, of which there are also many. All these spaces are filled with sand and attractively planted with bushes and trees.

Playgrounds are only effective sites for play if children can access them safely. Other elements of the built environment are therefore crucial too. There are traffic-free play street zones across much of the neighbourhood. Widespread use of underground car parking takes many cars off the streets. The entire residential area is a 20mph zone. Best of all, cut-through walkways embedded in all the new developments make journeys fun, varied and safe. Scooting through these walkways, playing hide-and-seek around the corners, makes the journey to the playground as playful as the destination.

It feels like the criteria for action spaces suggested by Blinkert are well-met. But playgrounds alone don’t enable play. What is truly transformative to me about the whole neighbourhood is the way in which children occupy the entire space (not just the playgrounds) – confidently, visibly and independently.

As I learnt so clearly from the Play Sufficiency study in Leeds, children need permission and time to play out freely, as well as space. Parents’ safety concerns are a key determinant, as Weaver points out in a 2017 Child in the City blog. The infrastructure measures described above are an important mechanism for addressing parents’ road-danger fears, underpinning a culture shift away from risk aversion which is the fulcrum for enabling children’s independent play.

Another key mechanism for enabling the shift is support from within the education system. Children start school in Germany at the age of six, with much fanfare and celebration. My son’s Einschulung (school-starting ceremony) began with a presentation from a local retired police officer. He spoke authoritatively about the benefits of travelling independently to school, from age 6 onward. He encouraged parents to practise the journey with their child until they were confident to do it alone, by bike, scooter or on foot. He pointed out that road traffic accidents were very rare. What’s more, in his 40-year career, no child had ever been abducted on a school run.

The school (Internationale Gesamtschule Heidelberg) creates a culture that supports independent mobility. Most teachers arrive at work by bike. The building is at least 100 metres from a road, so driving there is actually a challenge. In the autumn term, all children attended a ‘mobility day’, where they were invited to bring in their bikes and scooters to be serviced, and ride a bike safety course, as well as attending sessions about using public transport safely and staying visible in the dark.

The combination of a supportive built environment, an impetus from within the educational establishment to develop the skills for independent mobility, and a cultural understanding that children’s independence is valued, results in a critical mass of children out and about on their own. It’s normalised, and therefore safe. And this independent journey to and from school is a key starting point for enabling children to use their local spaces freely for play.

A 2013 study conducted by Blinkert et al.,  Raum Für Kinderspiel! (Space for children to play!) examined the play experiences of 5,000 children aged from 5-9 in five local authority areas in Baden Württemburg. The study found 55% of children played out independently without adults on a regular basis, for an average of 67 minutes per day. The quality of residential environments, as well as parental attitudes towards learning and safety, were identified as the key factors in enabling or restricting children’s unsupervised outdoor play.

A corresponding, smaller-scale research project was subsequently undertaken in the UK (with study limitations – a self-selecting sample responded to an online survey), and it was found that the UK parents were two-and-a-half times more cautious or risk averse than the German parents. Children in the sample played out approximately half as much as their German counterparts.

The 2021 Play Sufficiency research in Leeds produced even more striking results – for example, 70% of children in Pupil Referral Units did not play outside at all. This research was focused on areas of the city facing the greatest challenges. The setting is crucial, as deprivation exacerbates incursions on outdoor play. Blinkert’s study found a strong correlation between poor-quality residential environments, low socio-economic status, and diminished playing experiences. It’s important to note that Heidelberg is a well-resourced city and Baden Würrtemburg a wealthy federal state. In many ways, it is something of a bubble.

Yet Blinkert identifies that many play-supporting adaptations to environments can create cost savings, such as reducing fixed play equipment in playgrounds. It’s not always about making huge investments, or creating the ‘perfect’ conditions for play. Indeed, the residential environment in Heidelberg would, on the face of it, be less conducive to enabling play than most English suburbs – accommodation is primarily rented, apartment-based and with very few private gardens.

Many parents in Leeds remember playing out as kids, and wish their children could have the same freedoms they did. Despite barriers, children in Leeds told play sufficiency researchers how important their streets and local public spaces are for play. These findings offer a great starting point for conversations about influencing variables such as risk perception, road safety measures and attitudes to children’s use of public spaces, with the objective of improving play sufficiency.

Seeing how play is enabled in Heidelberg has given me hope that such changes really are possible elsewhere. Notwithstanding crucial (and potentially costly) measures to reduce traffic danger, my observation is that the key difference between living here and in the UK is attitudinal. Simply put, it’s normal for kids to play out here in a way that it never was for us in Leeds. And with facilities like Alla Hopp, it’s even normal for adults to play out too.

Leeds is doing amazing things to support children’s play. The Child Friendly Leeds initiative is influential and achieving real change for children. The Play Sufficiency research has been an important lever for embedding measures to support and enable play into city policy. But giving parents the confidence to let their six-year-old travel independently to school and stop off for a bit of free play on the way home, is still a long way from the norm. To move towards this, more needs to happen than the provision of more or better-located playgrounds. What’s required is a systems thinking approach foregrounded by a focus on children’s and adults’ right to socialise, play and actively travel in the public realm. Leeds’ potential adoption of play sufficiency as an organising principle around which such efforts can be assembled could set the city on the path towards real change.

We thank Sally wholeheartedly for this excellent blog and wish her well in her new role in Science Communication in Heidelberg. You can find Sally on X @SallyHealth4all

References

Blinkert, B. (2004). Quality of the city for children: chaos and order. Children Youth and Environments14(2), 99-112.

Blinkert, B., & Weaver, E. (2015). Residential environment and types of childhood. Humanities and social sciences3(5), 159-168.

Weaver, E. (2017) Why do German children play out more than British? Child in the City.org

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